Electronic music was a niche interest for decades during the 20th century, but it took a couple of crucial tunes in the 60s to really bring it to wider public attention.
TELSTAR BLAZES A TRAIL IN THE SKY
Arguably the first electronic pop hit was Telstar by The Tornados, way back in 1962. This eerie, soaring piece of home studio tech-trickery was the brainchild of Joe Meek, an eccentric genius who produced unique sounds, wrote songs and saw himself as a record label boss too.
Telstar remains a brilliant homage to the 1960s space age, and a ground-breaking piece of electro pop. There’s simply nothing else like it from early 60s British or American chart music. It’s truly experimental – check the opening and ending satellite noises, the weird feedback from the future.
Yet Telstar has a powerful, almost conventional melody, plus wonderful flourishes and counterpoints bouncing off the central theme of the song. Meek never really hit this kind of electronic gold again, and died by his own hand in 1967, as an argument over copyright infringement rumbled on. It was settled in his favour, after his suicide by the way.
DR WHO BRINGS ELECTRONICA TO EVERY LIVING ROOM
In 1963, a year after Telstar, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – yes, there was such a thing – produced the theme for the new Dr Who sci-fi children’s series. It is one of the most enduring, and catchy pop tunes ever composed and inspired a legion of experimenters throughout pop music for the next decade or so.
Composed by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire, the Dr Who theme is an elegant, soaring and epic tune. Like Telstar it has lots of little touches which add interest as the theme develops and it’s a typical BBC crime that Delia Derbyshire received NO royalties at all for her studio work in producing the theme song.
Listen to the various Dr Who themes, including the original here.
1960s PROG ROCK AND THE GERMAN INFLUENCE
It took the invention of the mini-Moog to bring electro into various bands during the 60s, although studio producers were also pushing on with adding various effects and futuristic edginess to some pop and rock songs.
The psychedelic summer of `67 brought studio manipulation to the fore, not just with art-house bands like Pink Floyd, but the Beatles and Stones had bold electronic effects and tweaks on tracks like 2000 Light Years From Home, or A Day in The Life.
But studio overdubbing, double/vari-speeding vocal tracks or adding a splash of Mellotron wasn’t quite electronic rock, or pop. Bands and studio engineers were using electro to add an extra layer to conventional rock or pop music.
Bands like Tangerine Dream and Can were trying to fuse some of the classical 50s and 60s elements of electronic or synth music with psychedelic rock in the late 60s and early 70s. In the UK Emerson Lake and Palmer brought instruments like the Moog on stage.The early incarnation of Roxy Music saw Brian Eno add a kind of prototype ambient sound to songs like The Bogus Man and Ladytron.
But all this was fiddling at the edges and it took a German band to snap the chains and break free from the past. Enter Kraftwerk. No guitars, no drums, no bass guitars. Just metal machine music from 1974 onwards.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the Autobahn album from 1973 now, because Kraftwerk inspired a legion of bands and musicians, all keen to dump traditional instruments and utilise synths, moogs, keyboards, studio effects to create an entirely new sound. The title track from Autobahn was a global hit and it captures the 70s road culture, the 24/7 movement of people and goods, perfectly. There’s an almost Dr Who undertone of alienation, and fear, in Autobahn too, it isn’t just a raw celebration of motorway speed and multi-track futurism.
Listen to the `74 single version here.
THE BRITISH SYNTH EXPLOSION
Kraftwerk were pioneers, and other German bands like Tangerine Dream had an impact within Prog Rock circles, but as regards mainstream pop and rock, the big movement of the mid-70s was punk, which was a return to the chaotic roots of rock `n’ roll, the idea that any bunch of crazy kids could throw together a band and just do it.
Punk was OK for guitar heroes, anarchists and riotous, slightly unstable shouty people, but in the background more studious types were investing in strange little boxes, twiddling with tape loops and trying to fuse moody German arthouse grandeur with a uniquely British take on catchy pop songwriting. The big strep forward was creating synth music you could actually dance to – something the Germans couldn’t really grasp, because – well, just watch some German people trying to dance. You’ll understand.
Pioneers like the Human League, Gary Numan and Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark made the breakthrough in the late 70s and early 1980s. From 1981 onwards, it was electronica all the way, and this new sound; an upbeat, danceable solution to the problem of blending electronics with pop music, suddenly caught on, and went mainstream for the first time.
There was still an arthouse mezzanine level, where New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Jean-Michel Jarre liked to shield themselves from TOTP and the Hoi Polloi to an extent. They also made some great music. But electronica found its moniker in the 80s, and it’s never looked back.
F*** art – let’s dance!
Here are some of the greatest hits of electronica;
Blue Monday – New Order. Factory Records reportedly lost money on every 12 inch version. Thank God for Tony Wilson and his Granada Reports pay packet 😉
Love Action – The Human League. Phil and the girls at their peak, lip-synthing and hip-swaying on BBC TV circa 1981. Wonderful stuff.
Fade To Grey – Visage. The late, great Steve Strange defined the whole New Romantic movement of the early 80s. If you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of Telstar in this swirling production.
Enola Gay – OMD. Depressing lyrics set atop a perfect pop symphony. It’s a little known fact that UKIP member Paul Nuttall played a Hammond organ on this track.
Enjoy The Silence – Depeche Mode. Even in the ’90s Depeche Mode could still come up a killer track